‘Like gold for ladies’

On my recent visit to Qatar I was intrigued to see that many women seemed to be more heavily veiled than 30 years ago – it seems common now for women to show only their eyes in a ninja-style arrangement of scarves, whereas in the past faces were often visible or a gauzy veil was dropped across the face. Then, a woman wearing gloves was a rarity; now, it’s more common.

On the other hand, I saw many abayas with discreet white detailing – lace or embroidery around the cuffs and hem – and some that were made from something other than shiny, black fabric (still black though), and the occasional one that had been cut in a fashionable way.

Something that hasn’t changed is the use of henna to decorate their hands. And the two or three women I approached to photograph their hands were quite willing so long as that was all I was snapping (ie, not their faces), and seemed to think it a marvellous joke.

The following article is from 1987 – I thought it may be of interest. The older woman who agreed to be interviewed did not want her name used. She didn’t speak English so I relied on a young Qatari woman, who was also my contact for the household.

Henna powder. Photo: Wikimedia

Henna decoration for women, a tradition in Arabia for centuries, is alive and well among Qatari women of all ages. The henna plant (Lawsonia inermis) is a member of the privet family and although the shrub can be found in gardens in Qatar, most women use imported henna powder from India, Pakistan, Sudan (thought to be the best for decoration) or Oman (generally used only on the hair).

In the past Qatari women would have collected the leaves, dried them and then ground the leaves into a powder before going on to prepare a henna paste. The flowers of the henna plant, with their distinctive fresh scent, are popular with Qatari women who like to cut them and have them in their homes.

Henna paste for decoration can be made in two ways. The first method uses crushed, dried lemons steeped in water. This mixture is then boiled. After stirring it up, the henna powder is added.

The paste is usually made in the morning and left covered until the afternoon when a dash of petrol or mahalabiya (an essential oil imported from Sudan that has a pine oil base) is added to help darken the resulting colour and to give a shine when the paste is applied to the skin.

The application of the paste to hands and feet is usually done in the evening and left on until the next morning.

The second method is simply to mix the henna powder with some lemon juice (again, to darken the colour) and water. It is usually estimated that half a packet of henna powder is enough to decorate the hands and feet of one woman.

Traditional Qatari decoration. Photo: Sandra Simpson (2015)

Designs traditional to the Arabian Gulf are simple next to the more elaborate designs preferred by Indian and Pakistani women and which are now [1987] available in a number of beauty salons in Doha.

Gulf women traditionally like small spots on the backs of their hands, henna staining their fingertips and nails, and perhaps a small flower drawn on the palm of their hand. Other variations include a thick bar across the palm, or the palm being completely stained. Feet are usually stained completely on the sole with the top of the toes and nails covered as well.

“Some ladies don’t like to have nail polish, but do like to have their nails coloured,” one Qatari woman explained, “so they use henna. When the Indian women started coming to the Gulf their fancy designs became more popular, but in our countries the designs are usually more simple. Henna is like gold for ladies.”

This woman had elaborate designs on the palms and simpler designs on the backs of her hands. Photo: Sandra Simpson (2015)

The longer henna can be left on, the darker the colour and, certainly among Gulf women, the darker the better.

A woman who plans to apply henna to her feet would do so overnight and would prepare her bed in a special way, with her feet raised off the mattress. The paste would start to dry after about 10 minutes and she could then go to sleep – during the winter months a small heater is often placed near the feet to speed drying.

To stain her palms, a woman would sleep with a wad of paste clutched in her fist – her hands would be tied into a ball with strips of cloth. The next morning the paste is washed off. The resulting staining can last up to a month, depending on the strength of the paste preparation.

Template patterns for sale in Souq Waqif, Doha. Photo: Sandra Simpson (2015)

On the eve of a young woman’s marriage a henna party (ghumra) is held and her friends and relatives will decorate her and each other. The designs are drawn on with matchsticks. Read more about ghumra nights in Saudi tradition.

The henna tradition is passed from mother to daughter among Gulf women, although many of the younger generation prefer to be decorated in beauty salons. These decorations usually last for about a week and are much redder in colour.

Pearl fishermen used henna on their palms to prevent blistering – henna was thought to harden the surface of the skin, heal, nourish and care for it.

Qatari women also often use henna as a colouring and conditioner for their hair. The powder is made into a paste with boiled tea or water and put on the hair for up to 3 hours, then washed off to give rich, dark red highlights.

Elaborate henna work. Photo: Sandra Simpson (2015)

Read more about henna, including patterns, at The Henna Page website.